The Court of Appeals (CA) has invalidated the panel that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had formed to reinvestigate the January 2011 murder in Palawan of environmentalist and radio commentator Dr. Gerry Ortega, raising the possibility the murder charges and arrest warrants against former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and his brother may eventually be quashed.
The CA’s special Fifth Decision said De Lima had committed grave abuse of discretion when she formed a second panel to look into the Ortega murder case instead of carrying out her duty to review the resolution of the first panel she had created and which had ruled that there was no probable cause to indict Reyes and his brother, former Coron Mayor Mario Reyes, for Ortega’s murder.
“It behooves the Secretary of Justice to adhere to the rules of procedure the Department of Justice promulgated for an orderly and effective administration of justice, otherwise the vast power of the Secretary of Justice would be susceptible of abuse. Scary!!” read the decision penned by Associate Justice Leoncia Real-Dimagiba.
De Lima on Tuesday said she had not yet read the decision but would ask the Solicitor General to prepare a motion for reconsideration.
De Lima initially formed a panel of prosecutors to investigate the Ortega killing in early 2011 through Department Order No. 091. The panel found probable cause against four persons and dismissed the complaints against six others, including the Reyes brothers.
Claiming to have new evidence, Ortega’s wife sought to have the investigation reopened, filing several petitions with the first panel.
On Sept. 7, 2011, De Lima issued a new department order creating a new prosecution panel to reinvestigate the Ortega case.
Finding of probable cause
The new panel found probable cause to indict the Reyes brothers, which resulted in the issuance of arrest warrants against them in March by the Puerto Princesa Regional Trial Court.
Mario Reyes then went to the appellate court to question De Lima’s creation of a second investigative panel.
In its decision, the appellate CA said De Lima was well within her powers to “review, modify, alter or nullify” the decision of the first investigative panel without conducting another investigation.
It noted that De Lima had to this day not acted on the motion for review ad cautelam (as a precaution) that Ortega’s wife had filed and which “was ripe for resolution.”
In creating a second panel to investigate the case, the appellate court said De Lima “blatantly disregarded” Rule 112 of the Rules of Court and the 2000 National Prosecution Service Rule on Appeal “which are the DOJ’s bibles in the conduct of preliminary investigations.”
The court also held that the second panel which came up with findings that modified the resolution of the first panel “exceeded its authority” because this power was vested only in the justice secretary. The court therefore declared the second panel “null and void.”
Ferdinand Topacio, the lawyer of the Reyes brothers, noted that the ruling on his client was similar to the appellate court ruling that overturned the decision of a lower court finding Sen. Panfilo Lacson liable for the Dacer-Corbito double murder, thus quashing the arrest warrant against Lacson.
The legal implication of the appellate court ruling was that the arrest warrants against the Reyes brothers should be dissolved since the constitution of the panel that reinvestigated the case had been held invalid and, thus, all its actions should be invalidated as well, he said.
He said the Reyeses’ lawyers were studying whether to ask the Palawan court to quash the arrest warrants against their clients.